In his latest exhibition Fight of the Month Mark Ussher creates art for our time by manipulating decades old “second hand images appropriated from popular entertainment and mass media advertising.”
At the centre of all Ussher’s work is the idea of appropriation which is a concept central to the Pop Art movement of the 1960’s, and a movement whose influence runs through all Ussher’s work. He does this in the same way that Pop Artists such as “Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, expanded the playing field by appropriating the combination of verbal and visual imagery in everyday life, particularly in commercial product designs and the products of popular culture.”
By lifting images of lesser known boxers and sporting heroes from 1950s and 1960s print media, Ussher draws attention to a layer of cultural life long ignored.“The impact of the images, the force of the boxer’s personalities, the effect of their violent behaviour and the pomp and ceremony is the central focus of the show.”
Reaching back into the past from his position in the 21st century Ussher fossicks for ideas and imagery that serve his purpose, that of ironically uniting violence with celebration and domesticity. In this way he imbues the past with relevance and authority in the present.
The irony is further enhanced as the imagery used is clearly from a much earlier period, but the idea of the sporting hero and archetype still exerts a powerful influence over society in this century.
Ussher makes the point that the “tough guy” from the 1950s might be a different model, but his image still persists in our present sporting heroes. Then as now, they are still larger than life and fodder for the media.
In works such as The Man the artist draws these various strands together by immersing his imagery in a glossy slab of bright colour with a high varnish finish giving the works a sexy, super slick quality in keeping with the “big event”. He consciously draws attention to the excitement of those events where physical contact results in opponents squaring off in a “fight” to the end.
But by the very act of highlighting the violence of contact sports both in the ring and on the field, Ussher reminds us that these same individuals have come from domestic lives as husbands, sons and fathers, where they are “heroes” of a different kind. The artist reminds us of the very different stereotypes at work within a single idea of maleness.
With humour and irony Ussher explains that stereotypes are just that. Under his scrutiny male and female stereotypes are shown up as superficial tags in the post-modern era where, “No text has any single, correct interpretation; meanings change with the reader, the time and the context.” So while 1950s and 1960s audiences might readily accept the notion of the female of the house doing all the domestic chores, that notion now seems open to interpretation in the 21st century as male / female gender roles dissolve.
As works like Man Killer indicate Ussher makes his point with humour rather than dogma and as such the works in Fight of the Month have broad appeal and relevance to generations of New Zealanders.
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